Christmas music is not a genre, but a body of compositions that share a common theme. In the world of popular music, the canonical Christmas songs—“Silent Night,” “Jingle Bells,” or “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”— have been recorded and re-recorded so exhaustively (even ad nauseum) that they probably make up the bulk of the popular holiday discography. There also exists a huge body of original Christmas songs in the wider popular music field, whether pop, rock, soul, funk, country, or even reggae. Admittedly, the vast majority of these can be unbearably schmaltzy, intolerably saccharine, embarrassingly maudlin, or just plain grating. But hidden amongst these slabs of good intentions gone wrong are a few gems. Below, I present five little-known 45s from the heart of the 1960s, all either released privately or on very small labels. For me, each of these discs has at least one side that is worth the three minutes or so of the attention it demands.
Little Jimmy Thomas Official – 104 (1964) A Deck the Halls (Fa La La La La) B Jimmy’s Christmas
Little Jimmy Thomas is better known to record collectors as Jimmy James Thomas, the Cincinnati-area musician who, sounding like the bastard child of Roy Head and Joe Tex, recorded the blue-eyed soul-funk monster “I Can’t Dance” on the Cinn-Sound label in 1967. Back in the early 60s, though, he was performing as Little Jimmy Thomas and the Flashers. Although it was a Christmas record, this RCA Custom release—probably pressed at RCA’s Indianapolis plant—was no novelty disc. A reworking of the holiday classic, with its solid beat and prominent organ it simply screams midwestern go-go club. This record should have been a seasonal, regional hit, and it’s really a shame that It’s not better known.
Brendan Hanlon and the Bat Men Bat Records – B-1005 (1964) A Christmas Party B Christmas Alphabet
I wonder if a young John Waters was ever aware of this local 45. If so, I could easily see it having been a contender for the soundtrack of the Christmas scenes in his 1974 film Female Trouble. The grungy guitar, dirty sax, and slightly slack-jawed vocals on Baltimore artist Brendan Hanlon’s “Christmas Party” come off like something from the Holiday Favorites box in Lux and Ivy’s record collection, or perhaps a track from a never realized Special Yuletide Edition of the Desperate Rock and Roll series of compilations. If Hanlon is remembered at all these days it’s not as a greasy rocker, but as an oily crooner. His fifteen minutes of fame came in 1968, shortly after he recorded a short string of singles for Columbia. He was hired that summer to appear on Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca’s touring stage revue. This led to a number of national television appearances along with Caesar and Coca, including one on The Merv Griffin Show. This was as high as his star was destined to rise, however. By the end of the year Columbia was finished with him. Once the touring show closed he milked his relative name recognition for another year or so, still making the occasional television appearance. He was last heard from in Miami in 1975, performing at a show club that promised audiences “a never-ending party.”
Saturday’s Children Dunwich – DN-144 (1966) A Deck Five B Christmas Sounds
Often touted as a Chicago band, Saturday’s Children actually hailed from three widely dispersed parts of the Chicagoland area, with two members even living in Indiana. In fact, in those days before cheap long distance calls their wide geographical distribution could sometimes cause communication problems. An early newspaper account of the band quoted lead guitarist Dave Carter as saying, “It runs us about $15 to settle something by phone.” The group got its start at The Cellar, a popular teen spot in suburban Arlington Heights. The club was managed by Paul Sampson, who also actively groomed artists for wider success via his Chicago-based Windy City Management agency. Under Sampson’s guidance the band released three 45s on Bill Traut’s legendary Dunwich imprint. Their first single for the label seemed to channel both ‘65/Revolver-era Beatles and the Zombies, with a healthy dollop of bent midwestern psychedelia added to the mix. Their second release took the Zombies-flavored jazz sensibilities one step further. For me it is one of the more remarkable discs to come out of the mid-1960s Illiana scene, not to mention one of the more interesting Christmas records of the era. “Deck Five” takes Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” as its basis, then adds lyrics from the carol “Deck the Halls.” A Hammond organ bridge briefly transforms the track into “We Three Kings,” before breaking down into tasteful jazz improv. The pleasant flip side could almost be a holiday offering from The Cyrkle. Overall “Deck Five” shows that Saturday’s Children were not just Beatles copycats, but had serious chops, both technically and creatively.
Chipper Malaco – 2002 (1967) A Groovy Christmas B Toy Soldier
It’s not clear why Malaco Records decided to release this disc under the pseudonym Chipper, while still providing the band’s real name on the label. The Tropics started out as a Tampa-based show band, complete with horn section, but soon switched to a British Invasion sound once it became clear that they could earn much more money that way. “Groovy Christmas,” the A-side of their sole recording as Chipper, is a good example of why male rock vocalists should really think twice before deciding to sing in falsetto. But the flip, “Toy Soldier,” is a dark, little organ-driven psychedelic pop tune. The song possesses enough subtlety and mystery to make it well worth the price of admission. A fun fact for record geeks: two members of The Tropics later went on to form the band White Witch, the “white magic” alternative to “black magic” bands like Coven and Black Sabbath.
The Buck Rogers Movement 21st Century Records – 602 (1967) A Do Christmas Trees Really Grow B Music to Watch Christmas Trees Grow
On the night of February 23, 1970, The Buck Rogers Movement were driving down I-85 into Atlanta to perform their next gig. Earlier in the evening they had stopped for gas in the town of Commerce. Here they attracted the attention of a couple of locals, who began heckling them about their long hair and beards. As the band left the station the rednecks followed them, before aggressively speeding around them and vanishing into the darkness ahead. A bit further on, the vehicle was again spotted on the roadside with the occupants standing beside its open trunk. Then, on the outskirts of Atlanta, the car suddenly pulled up alongside the band. A shot was fired from within, hitting lead guitarist Harlan Cornelius in the head. He survived, but lost his left eye. Even though police later identified the assailants, contemporary reports stated that it was unlikely that the pair would ever stand trial as no one in the group could agree on the exact details of the description of the car the shot was fired from. The Buck Rogers Movement emerged from the late-1960s New England scene, releasing three discs on their own 21st Century label. Listening to these records today, it’s obvious that the group was trying for major market success. This was no scruffy garage band, but the sort of act that could easily have appeared on The Kraft Music Hall or The Joey Bishop Show. While the over-arranged show band sound might be a bit bland elsewhere, the minor key arrangement combined with just a hint of private press imperfection makes “Do Christmas Trees Really Grow” an effectively dark little seasonal offering.
In 2009, the news network Al Jazeera posted a video to its YouTube channel called Finland Forest Folk. The five-and-a-half-minute documentary showed Finnish musicians Lau Nau (Laura Naukkarinen) and Kuupuu (Jonna Karanka) composing and recording their fragile electronica in the middle of the boreal forest. Both artists at the time were associated with the Tampere-based Fonal label, and were key members of a group of musical explorers labeled the New Weird Finland or “forest folk” by music journalists. Naukkarinen has stated elsewhere that she began her career heavily influenced by such freak folk luminaries as Linda Perhacs and Vashti Bunyan. She has also worked extensively with jouhikko revivalist Pekko Käppi. Despite this, watching the video at the time I heard very little of what I would call folk music in the electronic bleeps, bells, and haunting elfin vocals Naukkarinen and Karanka created. It was neither traditional nor “of the people.” That is not to say I dismissed the idea that the music might possibly be some sort of modern folk form, but that it just didn’t jibe with my pre-existing definition of the term. All these years later I’m still wrestling with this idea of how we define “folk” in an age of instant communication and software-driven everything. But I was very taken with the image of a deep sense of the land as muse for experimental music. This little video suggested that there existed a thriving, deeply rural avant-garde somewhere in the world, an idea that resonated very strongly with me.
A couple of years ago, Stefan Keydel was vacationing with his family in Finland. They had rented a cabin near Sulkava, an idyllic rural retreat with the requisite sauna down by the lakeside. Anyone who has ever spent the day driving across a landscape consisting of miles of unbroken forest, whether in West Virginia or Scandinavia, will know that at times it feels like traversing a dark green expanse of water. Hills become ocean swells, and the whole thing threatens to pull you under. The forest seemed to have this effect upon Stefan, and while at the cabin he dreamed that he was drowning on dry land. Freud associated dreams of water with birth, but popular psychology these days usually interprets dreams of drowning as arising from a fear of loss of control. And there are few places were the city-bred are less in control than the deep woods. This truth was already very old when the Brothers Grimm began gathering stories about children vanishing into the forest, as lost and irretrievable as if they were thrown into the sea.
One night during his stay, Stefan walked down to the lakeside where he saw a huge red moon hovering just above the tree line: a total lunar eclipse, a blood moon. He was familiar with the symbolism of a blood red moon from Revelation 6:12, “And I beheld when he had opened the sixth seal, and, lo, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood.” Stefan tells me that this image, coupled with the earlier dream, felt apocalyptic. I assume he means this in the way the word is commonly used, to refer to a catastrophic end to things, one perhaps foretold in prophecy. But we should remember that this usage is something of a catachresis. “Apocalypse” in its original Greek means “revelation.” These twin revelatory events—the dream followed by the vision (however real the moon was, it still carried visionary meaning for him)—were the inspiration for the latest single by Keydel’s alter-ego, Dreihasenbild, on his own Wet Barbed Wire label.
The title track, “Verikuu sulkavan yli” [“Blood Moon Over Sulkava”], begins with what sounds like a music box playing a crisp, looping melody. Keydel’s violin soon enters the mix, adding a smoky, wooden warmth to the fragile, icy metal edge of the intro. A lone voice then emerges, stark and haunted. It is joined by others, broken angels, singing of drowning on dry land. Their chorus falls from the skies into the conifers below, somewhere between lament and mournful celebration. The track transcends the usual labels given to popular music and veers towards a certain modern classicism, but at heart it is pure Romanticism.
Basically a dramatic ambient piece, the opening notes of “After the Madness” sound at first almost like the string section of an orchestra tuning up, before settling into the electronic drift we expect from such a composition. Buried just below the surface, though, is a field recording. Impossible to identify, the sounds are both organic and mechanical, creating an unnerving subtext. A thoughtfully chosen B-side should serve as support act to the main event. It should complement and anchor the A-side without overshadowing it, and this track does that well.
Stefan photographed the blood moon as it rose over Sulkava, and that image appears on the single’s picture sleeve, designed by Will Branch. Keydel trained as a folklorist and is an accomplished violinist, but has also spent much of his life listening to and working with electronic sounds. He refers to his current work as hauntronica, which simultaneously evokes the ghosts of classic electronica and hauntology-as-genre. But if the output of the New Weird Finland artists can be called “forest folk,” then it’s also an appropriate enough label for this recording. I might also go so far as to add the label “visionary,” if not “apocalyptic.” So much music that is presented as “apocalyptic” these days is harsh, ragged, even brutal. The beauty of this disc proves that it need not be so. This is easy listening for those who actually listen.
A curious ad appeared in the August 1955 issue of Ray Palmer’s MysticMagazine. It announced the release of an LP that would allow readers the opportunity to hear the voice of someone called Yada Di Shi’ite. It went on to say that the record contained “a true aural picture of a typical lecture given by the teachers of the Inner Circle through Mark Probert.” As puzzling as this may sound to us today, regular readers of Mystic would have been very familiar with both Yada and Probert. What is not obvious from the information given, is that this might well be the earliest example of a commercially released vinyl record related to the UFO phenomenon. Unfortunately, no copies of the record are known to exist, and to my knowledge very few collectors are even aware of it. But how this record came to be created and its relationship to early UFO culture is something of a tale.
On October 14, 1946, The Los Angeles Daily News reported that a number of people in San Diego believed that “a space ship from another planet” had attempted to make contact with Earth during the previous week’s meteor shower, an event caused by the passing of the Giacobini-Zinner comet. Although local authorities received no reports of anything out of the ordinary, at least a dozen people told the paper that on October 9 they had witnessed a “large and weird object” in the sky over the city. One witness was quoted as saying, “It was shaped like a bullet and left this vapor trail behind it.” Another observed that it had “something that looked like wings.” The article curiously went on to say that local occult publisher Meade Layne was “putting a medium to work on the supposed sighting.” That medium was Mark Probert.
According to the brief autobiography published in the 1963 edition of his book The Magic Bag, Mark Probert was born in Bayonne, New Jersey, in 1907. As a teenager he joined the Merchant Marine. But after only two years at sea, he disembarked at San Diego and decided to stay. There he worked briefly as a jockey and a bellhop, before moving into vaudeville as a “song and dance man.” By the 1930s vaudeville was dying, so in 1939, he took a job as a graphic artist with the Visual Education Department of the San Diego public school system. It was there he met his wife Irene.
Not long after they were married, Irene made a casual remark that would change the course of their lives. She told Mark that he often talked in his sleep. The odd thing was that when this happened, it sounded as if he were speaking a foreign language. Soon the couple met Meade Layne, a former university professor who had left academia to devote his life to the study of psychic phenomena. As Probert put it, “he had considerable interest and knowledge in the fields of metaphysical and occult laws.” It was Layne who convinced Probert that his nocturnal mumblings could be evidence that he was in fact a trance medium.
The idea that Probert was perhaps channeling entities from beyond was put to the test during an experimental séance. Recounting his experience years later, Probert recalled that after being instructed to relax, he soon found himself in a state of euphoria so intense that he lost all awareness of the world around him. When he regained consciousness, he was told that he had been in a trance for some 45 minutes and had spoken in a voice not his own. The voice introduced itself as Martin Latamore Lingford, a New York showman who had lived earlier in the century. Lingford explained that he and a group of other entities from the “inner planes” had spent years preparing Probert for his role as channel. Soon, the voice promised, these other “controls” would also come forward and make themselves known.
During a number of séances over the next three years, the other controls—collectively known as the Inner Circle—did indeed appear, and began to reveal their plan for Probert’s life. They explained that it was they who had chosen Irene to be not only his wife, but also “their personal guide and assistant in the work.” They emphasized that this work was to be “almost entirely of an educational nature” and not to “expect much in the way of personal matters.” On the surface this may seem a minor point. But this statement could be read as a conscious attempt by Probert to separate his work from earlier trance mediums of the spiritualist movement, who would often help the bereaved by contacting their “dear departed loved ones.” It seems that something more important was happening here.
In early 1945, Meade Layne began publishing a newsletter called The Round Robin. The first issue was sent out, somewhat experimentally, to some 15 to 20 people. Over time it grew, and after a name change to The Journal of Borderland Research, it endured into the current century. In the October 1946 issue, Layne explained that the mysterious object reported by the newspapers that month first came to his attention when he received a telephone call from Mark Probert. He told Layne that he had been watching the meteor shower from the top floor of a building when he sighted it. He described it as a luminous craft, “about the size of an extremely large plane,” with two reddish lights, moving very fast. He then added a surprising detail: “the flapping of its wings was plainly visible.”
The next day Layne received a number of calls from other witnesses who agreed on some points of Probert’s description and disagreed on others. Why these witnesses would call Layne, and not the authorities, to report their sightings is not explained. In a footnote he adds that, “The record of such strange craft, objects, appearances in the sky has greatly increased since Charles Fort began his astonishing memo, and still grows.” This is an interesting comment given that it suggests that the era of the UFO dates to Charles Fort’s early work, the first volume of his “astonishing memo” being his Book of the Damned, published in 1919. What is more remarkable is that this statement was made a full eight months before public knowledge of UFOs was widespread, at least as any sort of organized concept. But early readers of Charles Fort were always a bit ahead of the curve in this respect.
Mark Probert soon went into a trance so that his controls could be asked about the object, something he now seemed to be able to do at will. From them he learned that it was called “the Kareeta.” (Elsewhere its name is given as “Careeta” and even “Corrida.”) In somewhat poetic language, the controls chimed in with their opinions about the craft. One said it came from a planet “many thousands” of miles away and that it was made of “balsam wood [sic] coated with a thin layer of alloy.” Another claimed that it came from “west of the moon” and that its pilots “want you to get a group of scientists who will meet them at some isolated spot.” At this point there is no indication that what was being described was anything other than a concrete object being piloted by physical beings.
In late May 1949, responding to Walter Winchell’s claim that UFOs were actually “experimental guided missiles from Russia,” Layne told a newspaper reporter that the saucers in fact originated from a place called Etheria. This was not a place that was part of our own physical reality, but a “material world, with objects and people and a great civilization, and it lies all about us, though invisible and untouchable.” Based on what he learned from Probert’s controls, Layne had been developing this idea throughout 1947, in the pages of The Round Robin.This is a very early version of the Interdimensional Hypothesis, an idea that would become well known in UFO circles some two decades later. According to the hypothesis conceived by Layne, the saucers did not come from outer space as we know it. Neither did they come from “the astral plane,” but from what was effectively a parallel universe. He was to formalize this idea in 1950, with the publication of a mimeographed booklet called The Ether Ship Mystery and Its Solution.
In late 1953, Ray Palmer, already well known for his success with Amazing Stories and Fate, launched a new magazine called Mystic. In his chatty editorials Palmer expressed a vision for the new publication that sounded almost as if he were attempting to create a new genre of literature, one that was somehow simultaneously both fact and fiction. This new enterprise served as something of a bridge between the fantastic fiction of Amazing Stories and the fantastic “fact” of Fate. In the third issue in March 1954, Palmer printed Roger Graham’s detailed account of how Probert, through his controls, successfully identified and diagnosed a number of Graham’s medical problems, diagnoses that were later confirmed by medical professionals. This article signaled the beginning of what would become something of a fascination with Probert on Ray Palmer’s part. This may have been partly due to the number of letters the magazine received about Probert’s alleged abilities, both supportive and scoffing. Palmer was never one to let a good controversy go unexploited.
The cover of the August 1954 issue of Mystic featured paintings by Probert of three of his more talkative controls. These were Ramon Natalli, an astronomer who lived at the time of Galileo; Doctor Alfred Luntz, a 19th-century Anglo-German “clergyman for the High Episcopal Church of England”; and Yada Di Shi’ite, a 500,000 year old priest from a lost Himalayan city. Elsewhere Probert wrote that these controls, along with two others, appeared to him in visible form one night in 1947, insisting that he paint their portraits. He did not explain why disembodied entities from the inner planes who had lived in a number of different physical bodies over the millennia would want portraits of themselves, but some of these paintings were later used as illustrations in Probert’s book The Magic Bag.
The feature article in the August issue of Mystic was the transcription of a séance held by Probert, attended by Irene and a man identified only as “RGM.” The pair were to present a set of questions to the controls that had been provided to them by Ray Palmer. The first of the Inner Circle to emerge was Dr. Luntz. The question posed to him concerned the extent of the US government’s knowledge of the true nature of flying saucers. For a Victorian vicar, Luntz seemed to be quite knowledgeable on the subject. His answer was that the government did indeed know more about the phenomenon than was publicly admitted, but that there was no sinister motive behind it. The intent was simply to shield the public from the panic that would surely result from any revelation. He then went on to suggest, somewhat incongruously, that arch-debunker Donald Menzel’s recent book—Flying Saucers, published by Harvard University Press in 1953—was the result of an intentional conspiracy to suppress the reality of the saucers.
Renaissance astronomer Ramon Natalli then made a brief appearance, presenting his theory that all reality is driven by consciousness. With the opening acts out of the way, it was time for Probert’s star turn. Yada Di Shi’ite manifested speaking his own impenetrable ancient language of Yuga. Introducing Yada’s arrival with a barrage of gibberish would soon become something of a set piece for Probert. Undoubtedly this was a device intended to add drama to Yada’s arrival and to increase audience anticipation. Switching to English, Yada provided the basic outline of his autobiography. He said he had lived a half million years ago in the city of Kaoti, in a civilization called Yu. There he was a Ka-Ta, or priest. Once he completed the “33rd degree in the order called Shi’ite,” he was given the title Yada. Since that first life in the Himalayas he had been reincarnated many times, the last being in China 500 years ago. In this description, Yada presented himself as something between a bodhisattva and a Scottish Rite Mason. He said that he had not experienced any “breaks in consciousness” since his original incarnation on Earth, and that anyone could achieve this. He then explained that reality is illusory but that mankind can rise out of this illusion by degrees. He closed with the revelation that no single path leads to enlightenment, but that “all of man’s experiences are to be classified as initiations into higher and to more complete states of awareness.”
Over the next year it was a rare copy of Mystic that did not feature Probert somewhere in its pages. An interesting letter from an anonymous correspondent who claimed to work in the mental health industry appeared in the August 1955 issue. He wrote that after seeing Probert in person he was “very disillusioned.” Among his complaints was that the messages the controls delivered were unoriginal, and seemed to have been gleaned from the library. Also unconvincing, was the fact that the various voices that emerged from Probert—whether early modern Italian, Victorian English, or ancient Himalayan—always spoke in the same accent. “I think these trance states would not have become necessary had he not found himself a teacher with no students, a philosopher with no audience,” he wrote, “consciously or unconsciously I believe that he is using the occult to put his own ideas across.”
Also in the August 1955 issue, was an advertisement for a long playing album, announcing that the public could now hear the voice of Yada Di Shi’ite at home. The ad copy was written in a tone that assumed the reader knew full well who both Probert and Yada were. It explained that the record had been made from an unedited, hour-long tape of a séance held before a live audience. Yada would begin the session by speaking in his ancient native tongue, before switching to English. The Himalayan priest would then give his opinions on such topics as reincarnation and the purpose of life, before taking questions from the audience. All this could be in the reader’s mailbox by sending only $4.98 to Inner Circle Records in Ojai, California.
To my knowledge, no copy of this record has ever turned up. Why? The first and most likely answer is that it was only ever pressed in an extremely limited quantity, never sold well, and any remaining stock was eventually disposed of. This has been the unfortunate fate of so many ephemeral recordings over the years. Another possibility is that it never existed. If that is the case, then the ad for the record was likely an attempt to secure orders before actually pressing and shipping the disc. This model was definitely in use at the time for self-published saucer and occult books, although in those cases buyers were usually clearly told that they were placing an advance order.
The offices of Mystic were in Evanston, Illinois, and Mark Probert was based in San Diego. Why then is the address given in the ad in Ojai, California, a tiny town more than 200 miles away from Probert’s home? The obvious answer is that the company producing the record was located there. It does not appear that Inner Circle Records actually existed except for the purposes of this release. In all likelihood, it is simply the label name Probert chose to use when arranging its manufacture with a custom pressing outfit. And in a town as small as Ojai, it would seem that the company should be fairly easy to identify.
At first sight, a tantalizing possibility is that the record may be a very early release by the legendary Two: Dot Records. This label was run by husband-and-wife team Dean and JoAnne Thompson from their home on the outskirts of town. They began doing run-of-the-mill custom work in the 1950s, before tapping into the regional rock scene in the late 1960s. Examples of the label’s 1970s output by bands like Hendrickson Road House or The Mystic Zephyrs 4 sometimes sell for as high as four figures.
However, there was also another label operating out of Ojai in the 1950s. Educo Records was founded in 1953, to release classical recordings to be used for music appreciation classes in schools and colleges. The company operated out of Ojai during its first few years of existence, and later relocated to nearby Ventura. Given that the PO Box address in the Mystic ad was that used by Educo while in Ojai, it is reasonable to conclude that this was the company contracted by Probert to manufacture the LP. So far, no other custom releases by Educo have been identified. But like other small labels of the era, it is likely that Educo accepted custom contracts to increase revenue, the finished product bearing no evidence of the manufacturer so as not to confuse private releases with the company’s main brand in the minds of consumers.
It is not known whether Probert’s LP contained any references to the flying saucer phenomenon. By 1956, however, Yada was giving audiences his opinion on the reality and nature of UFOs, still promoting the idea that they were not from other planets but from another dimension. In early 1957, Probert was a guest on Long John Nebel’s radio show in New York, a regular stop for saucer celebrities. In 1960, he appeared at the Giant Rock Spacecraft Convention—the most famous and one of the largest of the early UFO conventions—where he channeled Yada for an audience, with Irene acting as master of ceremonies. Here, as usual, Yada first emerged speaking Yuga before switching to English.
A cynical observer might point out that Probert by his own admission was an ex-vaudevillian, and that this standard performance—repeated ad infinitum—was beginning to have something of the feel of a tired old vaudeville turn. The couple continued touring the country performing séances throughout the 1960s, and after Irene’s death in 1966, Probert continued his work alone.
Probert’s last known major public appearance was at the Northern California Space Convention in October 1968. At this point he was telling audiences that he was not a medium, but a “telegnostic.” This term not only served to further distance him from the stereotype of the medium left over from the days of spiritualism, but implied something deeper. The term suggested that he was not just contacting spirits, but was somehow transmitting gnosis from some distant location. It also served to position him not simply as a fortune teller or mentalist, but as something much more serious: a gnostic. Mark Probert died a few months later, in early 1969.
It is easy in our rationalist era to cast Mark Probert as one in a long line of spiritualists who were either delusional or blatantly fraudulent. But this point of view ignores the content of his message. What is remarkable about the séance published in the August 1954 issue of Mystic, is that in a single, short session Probert—or, if you prefer, his controls—was able to seamlessly guide the conversation from possible conspiracies around the existence of UFOs, to ideas about reality being a by-product of consciousness, ending with hints of a grand Buddho-Masonic theory of release from the cycle of reincarnation, resulting in something resembling Buddhahood. In doing so, he provided a tantalizing suggestion that these things might somehow all be related. It is also striking that the questions raised by Natalli and Yada during the séance are still those that concern serious modern students of anomalous phenomena, mysticism, and even physics. In effect, Probert seemed to be telling audiences to move away from the obvious conclusions they were making not only about saucers, but about existence itself.
As far back as 1947, when most people were just hearing the term “flying saucers” for the first time, Mark Probert had already rejected myopic materialism, and was telling the world that perhaps the very fabric of reality was quite different than our model of it. And though wrapped in a presentation that borrowed heavily from theosophy, spiritualism, and the vaudeville stage, Probert’s ideas foreshadowed an important direction that one school of thought was to take in the future. This move away from the idea of UFOs as a nuts and bolts phenomenon, and towards a more blended view involving theories of consciousness, human cognition, and quantum theories of time and space is one that is fast gaining momentum today.
Many myths and legends center around something lost, an object or a bit of knowledge; its very absence imbues the missing thing with meaning, even importance. It is likely, however, that the idea of a lost recording of the voice of Yada Di Shi’ite is much more interesting than the actual reality, were a copy ever to surface. But puzzles like the one surrounding this album are what keep researchers moving forward, and in the process uncovering the next riddle to be solved. The UFO phenomenon itself is more koan than puzzle. It is also both an ontological and an epistemological mystery, so it should come as no surprise that a study of recordings related to it would begin with its own discographical mystery.
For a while now I’ve been considering what discography might look like as a practice that is simultaneously creative and empirical. Recently, I came across a 45 by an obscure Lebanese pop artist that immediately struck me as the perfect starting point to work out some of my ideas on the subject. These ideas are loosely informed and inspired by the current practice of research-creation that attempts to express “hard” research using creative modes, Siegfried Zielinski’s concept of the anarchive, Walter Benjamin’s “magic encyclopedia,” and Erdmut Wizisla’s idea that objects in a collection can have a “sibling relationship” and be “conversant” with one another. What I offer here is a short discography that has emerged from the single itself. It is both a light “reading” of the object as a text, and a reconstruction of a collection of records that is portrayed on its picture sleeve. For this exercise, I started with no plan, no grand theory, no research question. I simply allowed the record to dream up its own discography.
Brotherphone BP 145/146 (Lebanon, 1963)
A Ya Ya Ya
The picture sleeve shows a young woman wearing a peignoir, sprawled across her bed amid stacks of 45s. She is examining the label of one of the records, while another spins on a portable turntable. Nearby is a stack of about a dozen more, resting atop what appears to be an LP. With so much information present on the sleeve, the immediate effect is to draw the eye towards the collection of objects on the bed in an attempt to make sense of them.
Mayada was something of a spinoff act. She was the younger sister of the much more famous Taroub. Most of what we know about Mayada’s background can only be surmised from her sister’s better documented biography.
Taroub was born in Damascus, but grew up in Amman, Jordan. In the late 1950s, she moved to Beirut, where she married Palestinian singer and composer Muhammad Jamal. The couple became quite famous, performing both individually and as a duo. By the mid-1960s Taroub began appearing in Lebanese and Turkish films. She was also a songwriter. Even though her performances seem very tame by today’s standards, they were often seen at the time as pushing the boundaries of propriety. With very few sources to go on, it is likely that Mayada also spent her early years in Jordan and followed her sister to Beirut at some point.
In the 1960s, Lebanon’s economy was booming. The language in the street was Arabic, but French was the language of business, education, and the elite. Although Arabicized for the local market, Mayada’s style and sound were decidedly European. This was her second disc for the Brotherphone label. Its A-side, “Ya Ya Ya,” is a nod to the emerging French subgenre known as yé-yé, which at the time was enjoying its initial blast of popularity in France via the radio program Salut les Copains and the magazine of the same name. The record player Mayada is using in the sleeve photo appears to be a Philips AG4000, a Dutch model manufactured between 1962 and 1964 (which also helps us date the record). Except for a copy of her own first single (see below), the other 45s scattered around her are from Germany and the Netherlands. The sleeve unambiguously portrays Mayada as an artist who takes her cultural cues from the West. While the photograph only supplies a limited amount of information, there is enough there to begin to reconstruct the collection of 45s it shows.
CBS CA 281.199 (Netherlands, 17 Jun 1963)
A Wini Wini (Tamouré)
B Losing You
The tamouré was a Tahitian dance rhythm first popularized by a French colonial soldier from Tahiti named Louis Martin, who wrote a song with this “nonsense” word as its chorus. (It was nonsense to Tahitian speakers, at any rate. Apparently, tamouré is the name of a fish from the Tuamotu Islands. Whether Martin was familiar with the Tuamotu word or whether this is pure coincidence is not known.) In 1963, an all-female studio group called Die Tahiti-Tamourés had a hit in West Germany with a tune called “Wini Wini” that used this rhythm, composed by the schlager team of Monique Falk (writing under her pseudonym, Heinz Hellmer) and Wolf Petersen.
Don Costa is probably best remembered as Frank Sinatra’s longtime conductor and arranger. Costa’s take on “Wini Wini” is just one of many cover versions released at the time in Germany and the Netherlands to capitalize on the tune’s success. Columbia also released Costa’s recording in America—a last gasp attempt to milk the already waning exotica craze—where it had zero impact. The presence of this 45 on the sleeve of Mayada’s own record points to the fact that it informs the B-side of her disc.
Columbia C 22 394 (Germany, 1963)
A Summer Holiday
B Dancing Shoes
Cliff Richard was the most successful of the several attempts by the British recording industry to find a home-grown replacement for Elvis Presley. Like Elvis, however, by 1963 Richard had already made the transition from rock star to milquetoast crooner, as the dominant model of rock stardom was fast shifting to the Beat combo. The A-side of this record, “Summer Holiday,” was the theme tune to the film of the same name—in which Richard also starred—and was a number one hit in Britain that summer.
Columbia C 22 072 (Germany, 1962)
A The Young Ones
B We Say Yeah
In the early 1960s, Columbia Records’ German division issued a generic die-cut sleeve for Cliff Richard’s singles. It bore a large photo of Richard on its left side, a reverse image of the one found on his 1961 LP, Listen to Cliff! In its upper right corner were small images of the German versions of two of Richard’s other albums for the label, Cliff’s 21stBirthday (1961) and Cliff Sings for the Young Ones (1962). The edge of this sleeve can just be made out, resting beneath the “Summer Holiday” single. It is likely that Columbia used it for other releases as well, but I have only ever seen the sleeve housing the theme song to Richard’s film The Young Ones, so identifying this as the disc on the cover of Mayada’s record is admittedly a guess. The fact that this and the Cliff Richard 45 mentioned above are both from film soundtracks is probably no accident. In the 1960s, Beirut was cinema mad and films from Egypt, Hollywood, and Europe were regularly shown.
Brotherphone BP 135/136 (Lebanon, 1963)
A Hully Gully
Mayada’s first 45 on the Brotherphone label is clearly pictured on the sleeve of her second release. This also appears to be the disc that is spinning on the turntable in the photograph. “Hully Gully” is a paean to the dance craze that was then sweeping the West, while “Surf” is a Franco-Arabic take on “If I Had a Hammer.” Her version was not based on Peter, Paul, & Mary’s hit single so familiar to most Americans, but on Trini Lopez’s uptempo cover of the tune that was a huge hit in France earlier that year, released there on the Reprise label.
By stepping outside the traditional organizational strategies of discography—the more common practice of arranging recordings by genre, artist, or country of origin—previously hidden connections are often revealed. These connections point to new information that itself can lead to new questions, new lines of inquiry. In this exercise, it quickly becomes apparent that European media was hugely influential in Lebanon in the early 1960s. Because all the records spread out on Mayada’s bed, except for her own first single, are CBS/Columbia releases from Germany and the Netherlands, it’s tempting to speculate that Brotherphone acted as a local distributor for the company. This adds an extra dimension to the question of why these particular discs appear on the sleeve. A traditionally organized discography of Lebanese 45s from the period would only show releases from homegrown labels like Brotherphone, Voice of Lebanon, or Baidaphone. While this approach would definitely be useful, it would not be a realistic portrayal of the discs that a typical popular music fan at the time might be listening to. There is even a danger that such a discography without sufficient introductory background material might unintentionally cause a false perception about the media landscape in the country during that decade.
As noted above, this is just a first step in thinking out the idea of how the art of discography could be practiced as a creative act while still retaining its relevance and usefulness, and as such it has barely scratched the surface of its ultimate potential. Traditional discographies with chatty annotations do already exist, and can certainly be seen as works that are simultaneously empirical and creative. What I am proposing, however, goes beyond simply incorporating creative writing into the practice. To be creative in a fundamental way a discographer must dispense with the boundaries of traditional organizational strategies, and even with the research question itself. By finding a simple starting point and letting the research lead where it may, the data will often begin to tell its own story, right before your eyes.
Like most of us, I’ve been thinking about little else besides the COVID-19 outbreak lately. Since during “normal” periods I’m usually considering the way that human culture is expressed through recorded media, I thought it would be an interesting exercise to combine the two things. So I decided to do a brief survey of records from the period I know best, roughly the 1960s and 1970s, that touch on the idea of contagion and the spread of disease. Often during this era, the idea of communicable illness was used as a metaphor for attraction and lust, such as in The Trammps’ 1973 hit, “Love Epidemic.” The examples here, however, all deal with literal epidemics. Interestingly, I can find no examples of the word “pandemic” being associated with any recording until the 1980s.
This selected discography was created as an exploration into the archive, as an exercise in discovery. The selections here are my own and as such are completely subjective. Exercises such as this one, however, often bring interesting questions to light. This makes them good potential starting points for deeper study.
Kimbo Records – KI 00131 (US, 7”, 1956)
A I Got the Asian Flu for Christmas
B Mother Goose Parade
American jazz and cabaret singer Marlene VerPlanck moonlights as a children’s entertainer on this exercise in bad taste. The Asian flu pandemic of 1956 to 1958 eventually resulted in the deaths of approximately two million people, nearly 70,000 in the US alone.
Basil Rathbone Basil Rathbone Reads Edgar Allan Poe Caedmon Records – TC 1028 (US, LP, 1958)
Before audiobooks there were spoken word records, and Caedmon was a pioneer in the field of recorded literature. For this outing the label hired Basil Rathbone, a legendary Shakespearean actor who was just beginning a professional freefall that would eventually result in his acceptance of roles in such films as The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966) and Hillbillys in a Haunted House (1967). Reading Poe was still within the respectable remit of the trained Shakespearean actor, however, so this disc was one of the high points of his later career. After reciting a number of Poe’s poems, Rathbone closes side one with “The Masque of the Red Death,” the author’s pessimistic tale of a medieval town in the midst of a plague that causes its victims to bleed from the pores. The moral? Death is coming for you. None of you can escape it. None of you.
Philips – BF 1628 (UK, 7”, 1967)
B The Plague
A non-LP B-side lurking on the reverse of Scott Walker’s bent cabaret version of Jacques Brel’s “Jackie,” “The Plague” was only slightly less in your face, but equally odd. The production here is enormous. Walker comes off as an avant-garde Tom Jones performing in an aircraft hangar accompanied by an orchestra and a group of backup singers direct from a surrealist episode of Soul Train. The lyrics are perfectly opaque, so it’s unclear whether the plague is meant as metaphor or literal disease. As Scott himself tells us in the song, though: “But it’s all so vague / When you meet the Plague.”
Eric Burdon & The Animals Winds of Change
MGM Records – SE 4484 (US, LP, 1967)
I’ve always been rather lukewarm about The Animals’ hit singles, but exploring Burdon & Company’s deeper catalog often leads to some interesting surprises. On “The Black Plague” from the 1967 LP Winds of Change, Burdon recites a creepy original poem that paints a post-apocalyptic portrait of life during the medieval plague years. The explicit details (“his hands were blistered”) and Burdon’s slight Geordie brogue give the piece a certain warm immediacy that works well. Haunting organ and background chants of “Bring out your dead” and “Unclean” only add to the atmosphere.
The Ethiopians JJ Records – DB 1185 (UK, 7”, 1969)
A Hong Kong Flu
B Clap Your Hands
Like much of the rest of the world, Jamaica was in the midst of the Hong Kong flu pandemic in 1969. By 1972 there would be a million dead worldwide from the disease. But music is the fuel that powers Jamaica’s culture, and events both good and bad are often celebrated in song. So it should come as no surprise that as the disease was ripping through the island, a band would record a hit single about the event. Despite its upbeat tempo—made for dancing, and people reportedly did dance to it—the song’s lyrics were quite serious: “Some say it’s dengue fever / I know it’s Hong Kong flu…It’s terrible and dreadful, man.” Many who lived through the period still remember the song today, perhaps even better than the pandemic itself.
Gil Mellé The Andromeda Strain Kapp Records – KRS 5513 (US, LP, 1971)
If you wanted to cozy up with an album that perfectly reflects all the tension, fear, and unease caused by COVID-19, Gil Mellé’s jarringly electronic soundtrack to the 1971 film The Andromeda Strain would be the perfect choice. The film deals with a group of scientists rushing to prevent a pandemic by an alien virus brought to earth by a crashed satellite. Mellé was a jazz musician who eventually turned to electronic music. He is probably best remembered as the composer of the theme to the early 1970s television series Rod Serling’s Night Gallery. His Andromeda soundtrack is edgy, jagged, noisy, and undoubtedly one of the strangest things to have been released by a major label up to that point.
OHO was a Baltimore band that appears to have performed with tongue firmly in cheek. Their version of private press prog ranged from near-cartoon goofiness to faux-epic posing. “The Plague,” from their debut LP, is based on Albert Camus’ 1947 novel La Peste, but the lyrics are impressionistic, not obviously narrative. It’s only through close listening for lines like “the dead pass by in carts” that we begin to suspect that the tune might be a portrayal of a city wracked by plague, not an attempt at demonstrating the lead vocalist’s truly sensitive nature.
Ian Richardson The Diary of Samuel Pepys
Caedmon Records – TC 1462 (US, LP, 1976)
Two years after his recording of a spoken word version of the 15th-century treatise on witchcraft, Malleus Maleficarum, Caedmon again turned to actor Ian Richardson to provide the same treatment for excerpts from Samuel Pepys’ diaries. Side one closes with the great diarist’s tales of life during 1665, the plague year. As the disease threatened London, Pepys wrote that there were “[g]reat fears of the sickenesse here in the City.” Once it arrived, the law stated that any house touched by the plague be shut up for 40 days with the residents inside, marked with a cross, and guarded by watchmen. “I did in Drury-lane see two or three houses marked with a red cross upon the doors, and ‘Lord have mercy upon us’ writ there—which was a sad sight to me,” he wrote. Despite the fact that his diary shows that he was clearly worried during this period, he continued to go about business as usual, but somehow avoided infection. His final diary entry for that year is almost celebratory, “I have never lived so merrily (besides that I never got so much) as I have done this plague-time.”
Tony Hymas Wessex Tales and Elements
KPM Music – KPM 1216 (UK, LP, 1978)
At the time this LP appeared on the legendary library music label KPM, keyboardist Tony Hymas was a member of ex-Cream bassist Jack Bruce’s band. Hymas was not just a session musician, however, but was also a composer, and would go on to release a number of albums on KPM. Wessex Tales and Elements consists of 13 tracks composed for an orchestra made up entirely of strings. As with many library LPs, each song on the tracklist is accompanied by a description of its mood, in order to assist radio and television programmers for whom the discs were intended. The descriptions on side one are bucolic: “Gradual awakening,” “Bright village activity,” and “Light rural pasttimes.” Things get decidedly darker on side two, which opens with a “Slowly building ominous progression.” The final track, “Pestilence,” is described as having a “Menacing build to climax.” The throaty growl of bowed contrabasses create enough texture and doom-filled drama to make up for the lack of percussion or other instruments. As the final note fades, one is left to assume that after pestilence the rest is silence.
During the summer of 1980, I was an exchange student in a small town in Germany. Its medieval walls and picturesque town gate gave the place a humble charm that belied its location in the midst of the lignite coal fields, the huge expanse of open pit mines that fill large chunks of the landscape between Cologne and the Dutch border. The town’s only skyline was the silhouette of the cooling towers of the nearby Niederaußem Power Station, a plant that still spews more mercury than most any other in Europe. I was already music-obsessed in those days. The summer’s soundtrack was determined by what was available to me: weekly episodes of John Peel’s show via the British Forces Broadcasting Service, and vinyl copies of the The Nina Hagen Band’s debut, Devo’s first album, and Kraftwerk’s Die Mensch-Maschine.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but two of these albums had been recorded within an hour’s journey from where I sat listening to them: Kraftwerk at their own Klingklang Studio in Düsseldorf, and Devo at Conny Plank’s studio in Wolperath, east of Cologne. My attention at the time was attuned to what was going on in the UK scene, so I had not yet learned of Germany’s huge role in the creation of the music I loved. The radio waves in that part of Europe at the time were actually pretty bleak, filled with Sheena Easton’s “9 to 5” and Udo Lindenberg’s German-language version of “Born to Be Wild.” Using an old 1960s multi-band console radio, however, it was possible to dial up the exotic. I heard broadcasts in Hungarian and Polish, and could easily get the English-language service of Radio Kiev. These were still the days of classic Soviet propaganda; each phrase the announcer spoke in her crisp, precise pronunciation simply oozed ideology. Then one evening while scanning the airwaves, I came across something truly bizarre.
The station I hit upon featured a woman’s voice speaking clusters of numbers in German. I listened for some minutes, expecting the broadcast to move on to something different—a station identification, an announcer—anything that would provide more information as to what I was hearing. But the voice just continued speaking numbers. I couldn’t be sure given its length, but after a while I began to suspect that perhaps the broadcast was on a loop, endlessly repeating itself. Being in the heart of western Europe in the midst of the Cold War, the idea that the station could somehow be linked to espionage did occur to me. Coming across a similar station a week or two later that was broadcasting numbers in Russian only increased this suspicion. Soon these stations became my favorite things to listen to in the evening. There was a hypnotic, soothing quality about them. The emotionless intonation of foreign words spoken in a flat dead studio space created something akin to an experimental ambient soundtrack. At the time, I thought this was my personal revelation, something practically undiscovered by others. Years later, in 1997, I was very surprised to see the release of a 4-CD box set called The Conet Project. Someone had not only collected more examples of these stations than I ever dreamed existed, but had even written a 72-page booklet about them, creating something of a typology in the process.
Stefan Keydel, March 2020. Photo by Lynne Adele.
Austin-based Stefan Keydel, who records under the name Dreihasenbild, also spent a chunk of the early 1980s in Germany. According to his website, he “uses wood (violin) and wire (synths from Moog and Teenage Engineering) to conjure up an otherworldly journey into the realm of hauntronica.” The specters of Düsseldorf and Wolperath decidedly haunt Dreihasenbild’s sound. The result is not simply some retro pastiche, however, but a fully contemporary expression that uses 80s Euro-electronica as foundation and toolkit, while still operating firmly from within this century.
Dreihasenbild is the German word for the “three hares,” a motif showing three rabbits or hares chasing each other in a circle. It is usually found as an architectural element across Eurasia, most commonly in Britain and Germany. Although thought to represent the Trinity when used in churches, like many folkloric motifs its original meaning is lost to time. Keydel put out two digital works under this name in 2018. But this month marks the release of the project’s first physical artifact, a vinyl 45 on his own Wet Barbed Wire label.
The three hares.
“Visitation” opens with a slowed-down sample from “Swedish Rhapsody,” one of the better-known tracks on the Conet Project CD. This sample, used with the permission of Conet compiler Akin Fernandez, was originally recorded from a German-language numbers station used by the Polish intelligence services. As an identifier, it used a music box playing a snippet of Hugo Alfvén’s “Swedish Rhapsody No. 1” as its interval signal. (Although there is some debate among numbers stations supergeeks as to whether the tune is actually one called “Luxembourg Polka.”) The track then moves into a hauntingly beautiful interplay between synthesizer and violin. The music is hugely cinematic in the way it completely transports the listener into its own narrative. Despite its graceful formality, the composition crackles at the edges with reminders that we should perhaps not get too comfortable. Its honey-colored tones are fraught with Eastern bloc paranoia, especially when what sounds like a young girl’s voice begins speaking a series of numbers through a heavy wall of distortion and static. The knowledge that this voice was not that of a young girl at all, but of a machine developed by the East German secret police known as a Sprach-Morse-Generator, only adds to the creep factor. You can almost see the antennae bristling atop the Polish embassy.
Although the disc’s B-side also incorporates a voice from the past seeping into the present, “Return” is a more understated ambient track. As a form, ambient music is generally composed to be unobtrusive and to work as a neutral background. Because of this, even the most effective ambient compositions can sometimes be little more than pleasant aural wallpaper. (Keeping in mind that even the creation of wallpaper can be a high art.) While “Return” could easily work as mood music for a slightly edgy cocktail party, it also possesses a certain arc, a certain drama, that recommends it to the more attentive listener. There’s something of a narrative structure here, an introduction followed by a sense of action rising to a climax, which then tumbles towards a resolution. In the end, we are left with only the voice of a Scottish miner speaking in a metrical sing-song through a rainstorm of static. Originally recorded in 1917, the fact that we can hear this voice at all is a gift to the present made possible by the cutting-edge technology of that era.
Listening to Dreihasenbild’s new release, the idea keeps recurring to me that 1980 is the disc’s default setting. Although I’m fairly certain that neither were direct influences, I hear echoes of Tuxedomoon’s use of “wood and wire” as well as Popul Vuh’s more ambient moments. In his book Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology, and Lost Futures, the late Mark Fisher referred to the electronic sound of the later 1970s and early 1980s as popular modernism. He pointed out that using technology to “allow new forms to emerge” was a “paradigmatically modernist” move, even when a work drew on older sources as its starting point. The danger of working in this mode is that it can lead to charges of rose-colored romanticism, of a desire to return to lost “good old days.” Fisher countered this view, however, by offering Fredric Jameson’s take on nostalgia, in which a longing is not for an historical period, but for a form. For me, the new Dreihasenbild disc is a good example of this Jamesonian nostalgia-that-is-not-nostalgia. Its haunting atmospheres suggest not a desire to return to 1980, but a longing to recapture a specific vision of the future that had developed by that period, one that was never realized. This was a future tinged with paranoia and possessing a cold, technological substrate—computers, synthesizers, and drum machines—that was nevertheless still kind, ethical, hopeful, aesthetic, and heartbreakingly romantic.
The term Afrofuturism was originally coined by critic Mark Dery to refer to “speculative fiction that treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of 20th-century technoculture.” Understanding that the term’s implications were wider than this definition allowed, Dery added that it could also more generally refer to any “African-American signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future.” When the term first appeared in print in 1994, it was immediately taken up by scholars and applied beyond the literary, especially to visual media and music. With this move also came a widening of its scope. Soon the idea was being applied to the African diaspora as a whole, which allowed for the inclusion of things like the more space age experiments of Caribbean dub producers such as Lee Perry and Scientist. Some tendrils of thought have even extended the idea to writers and artists on the continent of Africa itself, although this angle is often debated, with detractors drawing the line around the diasporic experience.
Once an idea as powerful as Afrofuturism appears in the intellectual landscape, scholars will naturally begin a sort of cultural archaeology in an attempt to trace its origins. Although earlier works that hint at the idea have been suggested as precursors—such as W. E. B. DuBois’ 1920 short story “The Comet” or Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man—these texts reflect steps towards the development of the theme, rather than being examples in themselves. Most treatments of the subject agree that that first appearance of Afrofuturism “writ large” in wider culture was the work of jazz musician Sun Ra. Although he had been claiming since at least 1952 to have been taken on an astral trip to Saturn, it wasn’t until the late 1950s that he and his band began performing in space age costumes that were equal parts Egyptian Revival and science fiction B-movie. At the same time, he began to publically espouse his esoteric philosophy—a cocktail of mythology, mysticism, Freemasonry, Rosicrucianism, Gnosticism, and black nationalism—while his music began to move away from more standard jazz forms into something decidedly more avant-garde. But several years before Sun Ra ever appeared on stage dressed as a pharaoh from the Pleiades, an African-American holiness preacher showed up at the Pentagon carrying a strange painting.
In 1944, Elder Charles Beck had a dream powerful enough to decide the course of his life for many years to come. In this dream the Russians had invaded the United States and killed off most white people. Some 50,000 African Americans then rose up against the invading army, holding them back long enough for a fleet of flying saucers to arrive and disintegrate the invaders by shooting fire from their portholes. During these events a “large angel” gave Beck a running commentary, telling him “how to go about saving the country and winning better understanding for all Negroes.” When he told people about the experience and that he took it seriously as some sort of prophecy, most of them scoffed. So he stopped discussing it until the late 1940s, when reports of sightings of flying saucers began to regularly appear in newspapers and gave him confidence to take the subject up again. Around this time, he had the dream on two other occasions. By this point he was no longer referring to it as a dream, but as a vision. Beck then commissioned an artist to create a visual representation of his vision. The resulting painting was executed “in good bright colors” and showed not only the saucers, but also Beck himself depicted as a latter-day Jacob “in the act of dreaming.”
Elder Charles Beck and parishioners, 1956
In late summer 1952, Beck experienced the vision for a fourth time. This inspired him to travel to Washington, where he brought the painting to the Pentagon in an effort to convince the Air Force to take his prophecy seriously. He told them that the flying saucers being reported in the media were “advanced [sic] agents being sent to earth by God to break up the Atomic war which is being planned.” He backed up his interpretation by citing both Ezekiel’s vision and a garbled version of an incident in northern New Mexico (later proven to be a hoax) reported by Frank Scully in his 1950 book Behind the Flying Saucers. The Pentagon referred him to “the flying saucer expert” at Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio, who, according to Beck, “refused to listen to his story.”
If you wanted to find a mystic among fundamentalist Christians, a good place to look would be among the holiness people. There’s something about a theology that emphasizes a literal possession by a metaphysical force as its starting point that tends to both attract and create mystics, albeit usually of a literalist sort. Elder Charles Beck was one such mystic. Probably born in Alabama around the turn of the last century (sources differ), by the mid-1940s he was a prominent holiness minister serving the African-American community in Pittsburgh. He was also a gospel recording artist, having recorded for Okeh Records in 1930 and for Decca in 1937, as well as having a successful local radio program. Most of the research that has been done on Beck focuses on the musical aspect of his career. What is rarely mentioned, however, is that he was very much an early civil rights activist and was also involved in the black nationalist movement. In 1945, he appeared before the newly founded United Nations, urging that the problem of anti-black discrimination around the world be addressed. During this visit he also met with delegates from “half a dozen colored nations.” A year later, he and a group of parishioners picketed the White House, protesting a recent spate of lynchings in Georgia. In early 1947, he toured the east coast with the choir from his radio program to raise money for the Willie Francis Defense Fund. Francis had been the victim of a botched execution attempt in Louisiana. His attorneys were appealing his case to the US Supreme Court, claiming that proceeding with the execution would be a violation of a number of laws. Sadly, Francis would lose the case and be executed later that year.
By the time he visited the Pentagon in 1952, Beck had relocated his ministry to Buffalo, New York, and was now well known across the region for his radio show based there. For Beck, his prophetic vision marked the beginning of something of an obsession with flying saucers and their deeper meaning. In the fall of 1953, he launched a tour of public speaking engagements with an unlikely sidekick. Orfeo Angelucci was a nervous, eccentric Italian American who worked in an aircraft plant in California. Beck seems to have learned of Angelucci when his article “I Traveled in a Flying Saucer” (ghostwritten by Paul M. Vest) appeared in the November issue of Ray Palmer’s Mystic magazine. If this is indeed the case, then Beck acted very quickly in contacting Angelucci, as the issue could not have been on the stands for more than a couple of weeks before the pair appeared together in New York City. Angelucci was one of the more unusual “contactees” of the 1950s, those individuals who claimed to have been in touch with space aliens. The main proof of these claims usually took the form of very clichéd narratives that even by the standards of the day seemed more pulp fiction than reality. Given Beck’s standing as a well-known activist and respected figure in the African-American community, his decision to appear with Angelucci seems bizarre from a modern perspective. But Beck seemed to believe his story, which also served to reinforce Beck’s own prophetic vision.
In the May 1954 issue of his magazine, Ray Palmer referred to Elder Charles Beck as “a staunch reader of Mystic” and “a true mystic.” Mystic could be purchased on newsstands, so it’s no surprise that someone with esoteric interests may have come across it accidentally and been drawn to it. What is more surprising, is that Beck seems to have been actively exploring what was something of an occult underground, and searching out others involved in the study of both UFOs and esotericism. A letter from Beck appeared in the February 15, 1955, issue of Saucer Sentinel, a mimeographed fanzine published by a group of UFO enthusiasts in Michigan. In it he mentioned his radio show on WKBW in Buffalo, and added that he was also about to start broadcasting from the border blaster XEG in Monterrey, Mexico, a monstrously powerful station that would greatly expand his audience. He told the zine that he would be discussing UFOs on these programs. He said that he was a friend of Gray Barker (a well-known publisher of UFO books and playful hoaxster), and occult publisher Meade Layne, and that he was a member of Layne’s Borderland Science Research Association. He also claimed to have recorded interviews on location with witnesses of the Flatwoods Monster in West Virginia and a reputed saucer landing in Sudbury, Ontario. What he did not mention was that his US radio show was syndicated to some 30 stations around the country, with a total audience of around three million, and the terms of his contract with XEG called for him to receive a payment of $150,000. This was big media—and big money.
Beck continued to release a handful of gospel recordings in the 1940s and 1950s, but these days he is probably best remembered from his appearance on a Folkways LP. Released in 1957, Urban Holiness Service was basically a collection of field recordings made at his church over a two-day period. William Tallmadge’s liner notes make it abundantly clear that the primary interest of the project was to exhibit evidence of the survival of Africanisms in Beck’s services. This is the last known recording on which Beck appears. In later years, other ministers—such as Frank Stranges, O. W. “Bud” Spriggs, and Bill Riddick—released UFO-themed records, each reframing the phenomenon through the filter of his own worldview. No recordings, commercial or otherwise, of Elder Charles Beck speaking on the subject of UFOs are known to exist, however. It is also not known whether he went forward with his plan to talk about them on his radio program. It is likely, though, that any such attempt would have been quashed by the program’s various producers, networks, and sponsors for being too fringe. As support for this hypothesis, any association of Beck’s name with UFOs vanishes from the record at this point.
According to the Encyclopedia of Gospel Music, Elder Charles Beck relocated to the newly independent nation of Ghana to do missionary work in 1960, and died there in 1972. This seems a fitting final chapter for a clergyman so interested in a better world for Africans and people of African descent. Ghana’s recent independence and the presidency of Kwame Nkrumah were seen by many at the time as symbols of hope for the future. And isn’t hope for a better future what Beck’s dream of 1944 was actually about? Neither Sun Ra’s claim to have traveled incorporeally to Venus, nor Beck’s account of an angel-guided prophetic vision were particularly radical when compared to other claims of the era. It must be remembered that early ufology was as much obsessed with metaphysics as it was with science, perhaps even more so. What was remarkable, and new, was that in Beck’s story African Americans engaged with futuristic technology in a struggle against oppression, and emerged the victors. It is important to note that this occurred only after white society was defeated by those very same forces. What is not specifically stated, but is implied, is what the future would hold for the black community after these events. It stands to reason that having become the heroes of the hour, along with the support of the aliens, that African Americans would now gain the respect, and perhaps the political and economic power, that had so far been denied them. This is textbook Afrofuturism.
In the histories of gospel music, the civil rights movement, and black nationalism, Elder Charles Beck is at most a minor character. But at the same time that Sun Ra was exploring the themes that were later to become known as Afrofuturism, Beck was following similar lines, apparently unaware of Ra’s activities. This leads me to two conclusions. The first is that there were certainly other African Americans in the 1940s and 1950s who were actively exploring this intersection of esotericism and identity. In fact, Sun Ra was a member of just such a group in Chicago in the 1950s, often overlooked under the dismissive term “book club.” Hopefully, in time, leads will drift to the surface of the archive that will enable scholars to further trace this important aspect of intellectual history. The second is that because early Afrofuturism was part of a wider trend, however small, any subsequent treatment of the subject should include these other voices. This in no way diminishes Sun Ra’s role as a major figure in the development of Afrofuturism, but acknowledging that there were others following the same intellectual trajectories serves to more firmly place him in context. And there is no doubt that Elder Charles Beck is part of that context.
In 1971, a curious album credited to La Banda Plástica de Tepetlixpa appeared on Caleidofon, an obscure label out of Mexico City. The cover featured a photograph—formatted to look like an old snapshot—of a village brass band, complete with bass drum and sousaphone. The group was posed beneath a large banner reading Adiós a los Beatles. At the top of the layout were the titles of ten Beatles songs. Something out of the ordinary was certainly happening here. Putting needle to disc proved the record to be exactly what it seemed: a village band from rural Mexico playing covers of Beatles tunes in a charmingly naïve style. At this point, the listener would undoubtedly have a number of questions. Turning the cover over to read the liner notes, however, would only increase the mystery.
The notes, written by producer José M. Silva, claimed that the Beatles were traveling in Oaxaca when someone told them about the famous volcanoes known as “Popo” and “Ixta,” just southeast of Mexico City. The story goes on to say that after visiting the volcanoes, the band passed through “a picturesque village” in the state of México called Tepetlixpa. There they were welcomed with a feast of mole, pulque, nopales, and tortilla chips. During their stay they were so surprised to hear the local brass band playing their music that they wept, expressing gratitude to their hosts. “We will never forget you,” they said, “but now it’s time to leave.” Silva ends his tale with the question, “Will they be back?”
The volcano known as “Popo”
The implication of the essay is that the photo on the cover of the album was taken as the Beatles were leaving Tepetlixpa, the village band seeing the group off on their further adventures. Both the content and tone of this tale make it fairly obvious that it is a fantasia. From its first line, “And the magical mystery tour began,” it casts the Beatles as psychedelic adventurers, traveling in Oaxaca “where they had mysterious experiences comparable only to those in faraway Tibet.” This view of the group was one that would already be familiar to audiences through portrayals in Yellow Submarine and The Magical Mystery Tour. This is the myth of the unified group, spreading joy and enlightenment through its music. This image of the Beatles as a crew of jolly psychonauts had not yet completely faded, as the full story of just how dysfunctional the group had become would not emerge for a few more years. It is unlikely that Silva intended his little fable to be taken literally. It seems, however, that as obscure as the record is, this tale has leaked out over the years into the great body of Beatles folklore. How did this happen? The key to answering this is to understand why an audience in 1971 would believe that John, Paul, George, and Ringo might actually have traveled together to Oaxaca.
The Beatles’ visit to India in early 1968 cemented in the public mind the image of a group that was willing to travel to the ends of the Earth in search of higher consciousness. In reality, their visit to the subcontinent was something of a train wreck, but this gets lost beneath the symbolic power of the group’s choice to go there at all. Perhaps more importantly, the trip served to highlight and further popularize a phenomenon that was already in full swing by 1968: the Hippie Trail. When the Hippie Trail is mentioned today, the reference is usually to the overland route from Istanbul to Kathmandu. This was indeed the Mother Road for counterculture travelers, one that often brought them face to face with the truths behind their orientalist fantasies. This wasn’t the only Hippie Trail, however. There was another that ran throughout Latin America. This route had the benefit of not requiring an airline ticket for North Americans, who could simply hitchhike to El Paso, San Diego, or Brownsville and walk across the border. From there, the thumb and cheap public transportation could get them at least as far as Panama. Whereas most travelers who headed out from Istanbul were bound for India or Kathmandu, travelers on the Latin route could be headed most anywhere, although there were a number of sites where the travelers tended to gather. Two of these were the villages around the volcanoes near Puebla—not far from Tepetlixpa, where our village band made its home—and the state of Oaxaca.
R. Gordon Wasson in Mexico
In late June, 1955, R. Gordon Wasson, a banker turned ethnobotanist, visited the state of Oaxaca along with New York society photographer Allan Richardson. Wasson and Richardson lodged with an Indian family in a rural Mazatec village, an area so off the beaten path that Spanish was still a foreign language to its inhabitants. With the help of a Spanish-speaking local official, the pair was introduced to a local curandera named María Sabina who agreed to oversee their initiatory velada, a highly ritualized healing ceremony in which participants tripped on psilocybin mushrooms. Wasson published a detailed account of this experience in the May 13, 1957 issue of Life magazine. This was perhaps the first in-depth mass media treatment of the psychedelic experience in the English language, one that made its way into supermarkets, beauty shops, and suburban homes. In the article, Wasson described his hallucinations in vivid detail:
They began with art motifs, angular such as might decorate carpets or textiles or wallpaper or the drawing board of an architect. Then they evolved into palaces with courts, arcades, gardens—resplendent palaces all laid over with semiprecious stones. Then I saw a mythological beast drawing a regal chariot. Later it was though the walls of our house had dissolved, and my spirit had flown forth, and I was suspended in mid-air viewing landscapes of mountains, with camel caravans advancing slowly across the slopes, the mountains rising tier above tier to the very heavens. Three days later, when I repeated the same experience in the same room with the same curanderas, instead of mountains I saw river estuaries, pellucid water flowing through an endless expanse of reeds down to a measureless sea, all by the pastel light of a horizontal sun. This time a human figure appeared, a woman in primitive costume, standing and staring across the water, enigmatic, beautiful, like a sculpture except that she breathed and was wearing woven colored garments. It seemed as though I was viewing a world of which I was not a part and with which I could not hope to establish contact. There I was, poised in space, a disembodied eye, invisible, incorporeal, seeing but not seen.
This was heady stuff for 1957, and it is now known that this article heavily influenced a number of budding psychonauts, including a young Terence McKenna.
Wasson’s Life article was followed by Folkways Records’ release the same year of his recording of a velada he had participated in with María Sabina, called Mushroom Ceremony of the Mazatec Indians of Mexico. On June 16, 1958, Time magazine followed up with an article called “Medicine: Mushroom Madness” that discussed both Wasson’s work and that of Albert Hofmann, the discoverer of LSD. Nearly a decade earlier than is commonly credited, the psychedelic era had begun.
When Wasson’s article in Life was published, he didn’t identify María Sabina by name. He used the pseudonym “Eva Mendez” and was vague about her specific location. In time, however, he let slip both Sabina’s name and the name of her village, Huautla de Jiménez. By the late 60s, with the Hippie Trail at its height, Sabina found a constant stream of oddly dressed foreigners knocking on her door, sometimes with a translator asking her to help them “find God.” She would gently respond that her mushrooms could not assist them in their search for the Deity, but were intended to heal specific ailments. Despite the fact that this parade of freaks provided something of an economic boon to the area, the conservative villagers did not take well to them. In time, Sabina was falsely accused of selling marijuana to the travelers. This feeling of ill will also led to her house being burnt down by someone who resented the disruption of traditional village life.
In the underground culture of the late 60s and early 70s, the words “Oaxaca” and “María Sabina” meant one thing: magic mushrooms. Perhaps because of this fame, all manner of celebrities are alleged to have visited Huautla. If someone was famous and even marginally associated with psychedelic culture, they were often said to have made the pilgrimage to María Sabina’s door. This list includes Bob Dylan, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Walt Disney, Cat Stevens, Aldous Huxley, and, of course, the Beatles. The details of most of these rumors are sketchy, and so far none of them have been proven to be based on anything other than wishful thinking.
As in most of the world, the Beatles were hugely popular in Mexico. Their records were released there and, despite the occasional ban, their films were shown. There is no documentary evidence that the Beatles ever traveled to the country, however. During the summer of 1965, the band was reportedly booked to play a concert in Mexico City, but the country’s authoritarian government canceled the show, stating that its youth were not ready for male rock and roll musicians with long hair. (This is the story, anyway. Although this detail has been widely reported as fact, I have not been able to confirm its source. Mark Lewisohn mentions in his book The Complete Beatles Chronicles that an early draft of the band’s itinerary for their 1965 tour listed a date in Mexico City for August 28 that was later removed. This is the sole mention of any documentary evidence I have been so far able to locate.)
There is not just one rumor of the Beatles’ alleged visit to southern Mexico; there are several. The number of variations on the Beatles rumors probably speaks to the amount of mental energy given the band over the years, as well as to the nature of folklore itself. The first of these is the story previously mentioned, in which the Beatles show up in Tepetlixpa—a small village that just happens to contain a Beatles cover band—after having been told by someone of the volcanoes in that region. A more vague rumor is that the Beatles visited Oaxaca in the mid-60s, around the time they were recording Revolver. Another story, equally lacking in detail, is that John and Yoko visited María Sabina in 1970.
A story that requires a bit more thought, though, is told by Álvaro Estrada in an early edition of his book Vida de María Sabina. He described widespread rumors during the summer of 1969, that a Cessna landed at Huatla de Jiménez carrying John, George, pilot Carlos Ávila Camacho, and an anthropologist named Brenda. They stayed at a local hotel, the Posada Rosada, and after sampling the local weed, put the word out that they wanted to meet María Sabina. Sabina sent a return message saying that she was too tired to meet them that night, but would do so the following evening. Since the entourage didn’t want to wait, they tracked down another sabia named Josefina Terán and did their velada with her in exchange for a few pesos. The story ends with Lennon having a bad trip, running from the hut screaming, “Don’t let them kill me!”
Huautla de Jiménez during the Hippie Trail days
This last story is worth considering carefully. Although he seems to have removed the anecdote from later editions of his book, it is an interesting fact that Estrada chose to repeat it at all. Álvaro Estrada was an educated local who was fluent in the Mazatec language and knew both R. Gordon Wasson and María Sabina well. The amount of detail the story provides places it in a different category than the others. The mention of an anthropologist named Brenda gives the tale the sense of being recounted by someone who was actually present and only caught the first name. The other details—the name of the pilot, the woman who stood in for María Sabina, and the specific hotel—all lend an air of believability. What doesn’t make sense, however, is why the group would go to all the trouble to charter an airplane to visit the legendary curandera, and then settle for a replacement simply because she couldn’t meet with them until the following evening. The detail of Lennon running from the hut in terror also feels suspiciously tacked on, as if the story needed a bit of drama, a punch line. It’s important to remember that Estrada does clearly state that this was a rumor, and that he removed it from later editions of his book. Once Huautla became a center of countercultural pilgrimage, it also became a place where travelers would exchange information. This is a fertile environment for the creation of rumor and legend. One guess would be that the story either originated or was embellished locally, where the details were added.
In the end, we are left with a single physical artifact: La Banda Plástica de Tepetlixpa’s Adiós a los Beatles album. The disc must have sold well, as Discos Caleidofon reissued it in the mid-70s. The reissue featured a more colorful cover showing a psychedelicized painting of the Fab Four, with the story of the Beatles’ arrival at Tepetlixpa repeated on the back cover. It would be fascinating if someday the real story behind the album’s creation were unearthed. On the turntable, the disc at first sounds like any one of a hundred other “folkloric” albums of local bands from Latin America. But ten or fifteen seconds into the first tune, something both recognizable and jaw dropping emerges. There’s little doubt that the album was marketed as a novelty, and there’s no reason to believe that the story of the Beatles’ trip through Mexico was anything more than advertising copy. It’s also easy to speculate that the project originally started out as an LP to memorialize the Beatles’ recent breakup (thus the banner reading Adiós a los Beatles), and that the story of the group’s visit was added later on. Regardless of whether the label nurtured the performance or discovered the band in situ already performing this material, the record is an important document. It captures a moment in which a great cultural wave from the industrial north—the 60s psychedelic movement—crashed firmly and irreversibly into the society of a developing nation, greatly influencing both its conservative small town musicians and its deepest indigenous traditions.
Great Bittern. Archibald Thorburn. Lithograph, ca. 1885.
This is the story, and we are to believe its ending is a happy one. Its hero, a young boy, can repeatedly attempt to solve the problem the story presents, but he will never reach its core. This is because he and the community in which he lives exist at different levels of consciousness, within different realities. Ultimately he will be forced to leave his village, to distance himself from the culture that created him. He is an anomaly, an outlier, an ontological naturalist born into a world of fundamentalists. Even if he manages to find peaceful détente with his native culture, it can never be home, not in any deep sense. There is no happy ending for him.
Near a small Bosnian Serb village, some time between the wars, a group of men hear a strange sound in the reeds while fishing: a sort of hollow booming, vaguely like someone blowing across the mouth of an oversized jug. Having never heard anything like it, they are terrified. When practical understanding fails them, they turn to a cultural understanding. They conclude that it is the voice of the drekavac, a demon of the wild places, only encountered by humans when death is near. A local boy refuses to believe in this fear. So he sets off to discover the true source of the sound. Stalking through the reeds, he hears something in front of him. He pauses and listens closely. The low thumps ripple through him and make his stomach tingle. Despite this odd feeling, the sound is not unpleasant. A dull booming of sorts, yes, but just before each burst there is what he can only describe as an intake of breath. No, an intake of sound. As if whatever were making it were drawing sound itself into its lungs in order to release it multiplied, deepened, transformed. After a moment, he carefully creeps forward. Parting the stalks, he sees a large, drab-colored, long-necked bird: Botaurus stellaris, the great bittern, rare in these parts. His testimony alone will not be enough, so he captures it to take back and prove to the villagers that they are safe from forest demons. His feat is hailed as heroic and brave. His neighbors are relieved and can now enjoy restful sleep.
But his heroic act has only proven the physical source of the sound. As an ontological naturalist he has missed what is perhaps the most important part of the scenario: how a sound with an unknown origin is received in a given culture. In human terms, its mythological reality is every bit as important as its measurable reality. In later life the boy will learn to bridge this gap. He will also learn that ontological naturalism is as much a dogmatic reality tunnel as superstition or fundamentalism. This bridging, this knowing, this becoming unstuck from described realities, is gnosis. But humans are social creatures, and their social structures are built upon fragile subjectivities. Happy endings are always compromises. There is no room for gnostics.
The MV Olga Patricia, somewhere in the North Sea, 1960s.
It is the summer of Swinging Radio England, 55,000 watts of mainstream pop rock broadcast across the North Sea basin from the MV Olga Patricia, a ship anchored just off the coast of Essex. By winter it would be gone, its place on the radio band replaced by jittery static. Later in the century rumors touching upon the US intelligence community would swirl around the ship. A couple of hours up the coast, near the Norfolk village of Hickling Heath, an Austin A40 Farina is parked at the side of the road. The sun has not yet broken over the eastern horizon. A path through a marsh leads to Hickling Broad, one of the many brackish inland lakes that dot this part of the county. A lone figure stands silhouetted in the midst of the reeds. In his right hand he holds what appears to be a small satellite dish. He sweeps it across the landscape as if searching for something. It would be easy for the casual observer to mistake both his identity and intent. A character from a science fiction novel? A foreign spy? Then, from an indeterminate point in the reeds comes a low thumping sound. He swings his device towards it and remains very still as the bass notes ripple across the broad. Is it bird, demon, or something else? The observer changes the observed.
The Norfolk Broads. Peter Henry Emerson, 1886.
In 1965, the British arm of Royal Dutch Shell began releasing a series of seven inch EPs of field recordings of birdsong. Not being expert in the manufacture of records—despite the fact that vinyl records are effectively made from crude oil and salt—Shell subcontracted the run to the Discourses label out of Tunbridge Wells, Kent. The label was primarily known for its light classical and educational material. Much of its catalog was instantly forgettable, but the company did release a few interesting curiosities such as a pair of ten-inch discs of ancient Greek literature read aloud by classical scholars, a rare chance to hear Homer as he may have sounded to his contemporaries. Discourses had also released a handful of field recordings, so Shell’s partnering with the label to release its British Bird Series made sense. At first glance it might seem odd for Shell to enter the recording field, but just about every major oil company that existed during the golden age of vinyl released records at some point. Most of these were created as promotional items or as premiums to give away to customers, but it’s not clear whether the British Bird EPs were distributed at petrol stations in Britain, sold in record stores, or both.
In a practice now known as “greenwash,” Shell was as early as 1955 disingenuously attempting to associate its brand with environmentalism via a series of magazine advertisements called Shell Nature Studies. The logic seems to have been that to escape from urbanization and reach nature in its most untouched form required a car, and a car required petrol. February’s advertisement from that year showed a tableau of various birds that Britons might see in late winter, painted by Maurice Wilson. A collection of the paintings that Wilson created for Shell was released the following year as a 48-page booklet called Shell Nature Studies: Birds and Beasts. Later books followed, featuring other artists illustrating other aspects of the natural world. By the 1960s bookstores were carrying titles such as Shell Nature Lovers Atlas and the Shell Bird Book.
When Shell decided to begin releasing field recordings in 1965, it initially planned to release a series of records for children. For the first of these— Sounds of the Countryside, Shell Junior Record No. 1—the firm recruited Johnny Morris, the presenter for the popular BBC television program Animal Magic, to provide lighthearted voiceovers to John Kirby’s recordings. The sleeve notes very specifically stated that the disc was intended for use in primary schools.
By the time the second installment appeared in 1966 Shell had shifted its focus. From this point on, and throughout the life of the series, the sleeve notes made no more mention of children or of schools. The language and presentation were now pointedly angled towards the adult market. Beginning with catalog number DCL-701, the next nine releases bore the subtitle, A Shell Nature Record—British Bird Series. With this change of focus also came a change in personnel. Shell now turned to Lawrence Shove for its field recordings. In 1963 Shove had released a seven-inch EP called The Country Sings: Songs and Calls of British Birds for the Midriver Recording Company in Gloucestershire, a tiny label that seems to have specialized in recordings of birdsong (although only two releases by the label have so far been identified.) In 1964 he won first prize in the BBC’s Council for Nature wildlife tape recording competition. Because of his association with Shell’s British Bird Series, by the end of the decade Shove would become one of the most recognized names in British field recording. In 1968 the BBC described him as “the only full-time freelance recordist of wildlife sounds in Britain.” He also appeared regularly on television and radio into the early 1970s, at which point he hung up his parabolic reflector and became manager of the Minack Theatre in Cornwall.
Birdsong is language. In many folklore traditions, understanding this language is seen as a sign of great wisdom. Both the Quran and the Talmud mention Solomon’s ability to understand the language of the birds. Indeed, to the uninitiated birdsong can sound like nothing more than abstract noise. But as one learns to identify the sounds of individual species and then the purpose of the various calls, the meaning behind this Babel is revealed.
In a 2014 article for Fact magazine, sound artist Lawrence English pointed out that mid-century sound recordists worked in an environment in which it was believed that they were transmitting objectivity: “The pretense to being objective brought with it an inferred negation of agency, that somehow the recordist was simply capturing moments of the real when they started the tape rolling.” Perhaps a naïve recordist, one with no knowledge of the natural world who simply pointed a microphone in a random direction, might be able to claim a “purer” objectivity than one who was familiar with the sounds being captured. From this point of view, as knowledge increases, so does the level of mediation. As the majority of Shove’s recordings were intended to demonstrate the sound of a particular bird, there is no question that he was a knowledgeable observer who went into the field fully intending to capture subjective, edited sonic events.
The little that has been written about Lawrence Shove often highlights his 1966 recording of the great bittern at Hickling Broad—released by Shell on a 1967 EP called Marsh and Riverside Birds—and its inclusion as the first item in the British Library’s British Wildlife Recordings collection. The great bittern is extremely rare in England. Although numbers have rebounded, by the late 1990s you could nearly count the number of male birds in the country on your fingers. The bird is also nearly impossible to see, a master of camouflage, and has even been known to move in sync with swaying reeds in order to better blend into its habitat.
I would suggest that Shove, in his pursuit of these rare sounds, could be viewed in two ways, sometimes simultaneously: as collector or as ghost hunter. The collector analogy should be fairly obvious. There are a finite number of bird species native to Great Britain and, as a collector of their sounds, he could simply tick them off a list as he captured them. This would naturally lead to a handful of difficult species left at the end, just as a collector may spend years tracking down the very rarest piece of Mauchlin ware or an impossible to find postage stamp. The ghost hunter analogy may be less obvious, but I would argue that ghost hunters do not actually hunt ghosts. They hunt measurable phenomena that they, and sometimes their audience, interpret as ghosts, often in the form of recorded sound. It is unlikely that Shove ever saw his famous great bittern, just as a ghost hunter never sees the source of a mysterious rapping caught on tape. Both the bittern’s foghorn call and the unexplained sounds from a “haunted” house can be measured, captured. The methodology for their capture is the same. The difference is in our interpretation of them.
Prior to 1895, the average person was only likely to come into contact with a phonograph at a demonstration presented by an exhibitor or at a phonograph parlor, an establishment that offered coin-operated machines at which customers could listen to records through tubes resembling a stethoscope. For the most part during this early period, it was only the wealthy—or at least the very comfortable—who actually owned machines in their homes. This means that the vast majority of records produced in these earliest days were sold not to individuals, but to these parlors and exhibitors. Local newspapers from the era are excellent sources of information on early phonograph culture. They would often mention the most popular selections that an individual parlor or exhibitor was featuring during a given week. These advertisements were not trying to sell phonograph records to the public, but to lure customers in to pay a fee to hear the recordings. To be clear, we’re primarily talking about cylinders here, the flat disc being still in its infancy. These announcements of local phonographic events often contain surprising details and can be extremely useful to the discographer of early material, but they can also create just as many puzzles as they solve.
On June 16, 1889, The Boston Globe reported that an Edison phonograph could be heard—“experienced” might be a more apt word at this early date—at the recreation of the Battle of Gettysburg that was currently drawing crowds in the city. Visitors to the exhibit could hear the voice of the English actress Ellen Terry, or Marie Jansen’s rendition of the slightly risqué “Be Good” from the comic opera The Oolah, which was still running on Broadway that summer. The third recording highlighted by the article was a rendition of an aria from Verdi’s Il Trovatore by a “lady whistler” named Alice J. Shaw. The tone of this announcement implied that all three women were more or less household names to Bostonians. As obscure as they now may seem, the careers of both Terry and Jansen are well documented in works on theatrical history. But history has not treated Alice J. Shaw as well. Despite her widespread fame and success, her story seems to have faded into the archive, treated as just another late 19th-century novelty act.
What is known about Mrs. Alice J. Shaw comes mostly from publicity material and newspaper accounts. She was born Alice Horton about 1855 in Elmira, New York. Her father was a businessman, and evidence suggests the family was seen as cultured as well as financially comfortable. She married W. W. Shaw in 1873, and soon thereafter the couple moved to Detroit, where their first two daughters were born. After Mr. Shaw’s business failed, the family relocated to New York City in search of financial salvation. This was not to be found there, however, so Alice was forced to make “a bitter struggle to maintain the family by dressmaking.” In the meantime, she gave birth to a set of twin daughters. Unable to make a living in the city, the family of six moved back to Elmira to live with Alice’s parents. Some time in 1885, Mr. Shaw left the family in Elmira and headed to parts unknown in search of opportunity. It was shortly after this that Alice Shaw came up with an unlikely way to support herself and her four daughters: she would become a professional whistler.
Mrs. Alice J. Shaw, 1905.
At the time, her choice was not as unlikely as it may now seem. Whistlers were relatively common on the stages of theaters that offered “polite variety,” a theatrical form that was just beginning to be called by a new name: vaudeville. Alice reportedly returned to Detroit to try her whistling act on the stage there. Audiences responded so well that she was encouraged to continue with her newfound career. But this is all backstory. Alice Shaw first appears in the record in her musical role in New York City in May 1886, whistling the light classics at society charity functions. By all accounts, although her act was most decidedly received as a novelty, she was charming, cultured, talented, tasteful in her selections, and could sight read. Audience members often entered her performances as skeptics, but left as converts.
In 1888, she traveled to London, armed with introductions provided by Mrs. Vanderbilt. These were sufficient to gain her entrée into the drawing rooms of the aristocracy, which eventually landed her at the dinner table of the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII. She charmed the prince, and later played up this royal connection when touring American theaters. There, to evoke a touch of Continental flair, she was often billed as La Belle Siffleuse. Eventually adding her youngest two daughters to the act, she toured extensively, not only on the US vaudeville circuit, but worldwide. During her career she performed, either solo or with her daughters, in Great Britain, Germany, Russia, and India, and she even began a tour of South Africa that was cut short by the outbreak of the Boer War.
Audiences love a bit of scandal attached to their celebrities and Shaw’s story, though not exactly scandalous, was not without its spice. When the press talked about her at length, a standard part of the story was that she was forced into the entertainment field to support her four daughters. The exact circumstances were discreetly rarely mentioned. However, in late 1888, newspapers reported that she had obtained a divorce from W. W. Shaw, her husband of fifteen years. Most articles of the period only hinted that Alice was an abandoned woman, that Mr. Shaw had shirked his responsibility and left her and their four children to fend for themselves. When her divorced status was mentioned it was done as a statement of fact; there was no noticeable whiff of censure for her part in the situation. After the divorce, however, newspapers did from time to time exhibit an interest in her love life. In the 1890s, there were various reports that she had turned down offers of marriage from British and European nobility. One report even claimed that the Shah of Persia had offered to buy her and take her back to his country. Most bizarrely though, in October 1888, just after her divorce was announced and as her fame was just beginning to grow, there were short-lived reports in both the American and British press that she was engaged to be married to Buffalo Bill Cody. This rumor vanished as quickly as it appeared.
In 1889, Alice J. Shaw’s act reportedly earned her $25,000, a huge sum at the time. But by 1903, she and her three youngest daughters were living with an aunt in upper Manhattan. Although she was still performing in theaters, by this point she was living paycheck to paycheck. In 1907, already a fading star, she made her only confirmed commercial recordings. She died on April 22, 1918, at her home in Brooklyn. After a funeral in New York City, her body was brought back to her hometown of Elmira, New York, for burial. Although the Elmira Star-Gazette carried a prominent article about her—albeit on page 10—The New York Times announcement of her death was much more succinct: “At her residence…Alice J. Shaw. Funeral private. Omit flowers.”
The announcement by The Boston Globe in 1889 that an exhibitor in that city possessed a recording by Alice Shaw presents something of a discographical problem. Although evidence suggests that she recorded at least three times in the 19th century, the only documented commercial recordings by Shaw date from 1907, these being two Victor discs and an Edison cylinder on which Shaw—accompanied by her twin daughters and a backing band—whistles a tune called “Spring-Tide Revels.” There is no direct evidence, physical or otherwise, that a commercial recording bearing her name was released before this time. So what are we to make of this?
Although it occurred in a private home, Alice Shaw’s first encounter with the recording horn is actually well documented. On August 14, 1888, Colonel George Gouraud, a colorful American Civil War veteran and Thomas Edison’s agent in England, held a press conference at Little Menlo, his house in London. The intention was to inform the British public that the Edison phonograph had arrived on its shores. Afterwards, he held a number of well-publicized parties at his home at which notable personalities were encouraged to perform for, or send greetings to, Thomas Edison by way of recorded cylinder. Wooden crates of these “white wax” cylinders were then sent back to Edison in New Jersey. Mrs. Shaw was present at the first of these parties and recorded one of her whistling specialties. Luckily, the crate containing this recording still survives at the Edison National Historic Site, and its contents were transferred to tape by the New York Public Library in 1995.
The Globe article in June 1889 reported that Alice recorded her rendition of the Verdi aria “just before she sailed for Europe.” This apparently refers to her return to London the previous month. This date is tantalizingly close to that of the first known batches of cylinders sold by the North American Phonograph Company to its licensees. In late May 1889, the company advertised “Musical phonograms [cylinders] in boxes of 6 and 12 (assorted)” at 45 cents each wholesale. When the company finally issued a list of available titles the following January, however, Mrs. Shaw’s name did not appear. But this is only the first mystery recording by Mrs. Shaw.
The November 1892 issue of The Phonogram, the house organ of Edison’s North American Phonograph Company, reported that Alice Shaw had recently “whistled into a phonograph cylinder.” The article added that it was “the intention of Mrs. Shaw to practice into the phonograph and thus preserve the permanent traces of effects which would otherwise be wasted. These will be preserved in ‘phonograph cabinets,’ and may be brought out and rendered audible at pleasure by every possessor of the instrument.” The evidence of an 1892 recording by Shaw is strengthened by the fact that a number of phonograph parlors and exhibitors in Utah, Nevada, California, Washington, and Texas between 1892 and 1897 mentioned having a recording by her in their advertisements. It is interesting that all of these examples are clustered in the western states, and that except for a single example from Seattle in 1897, all date from October 1892 to January 1894, a span just a bit over one year. This also nests conveniently well with the date of The Phonogram article mentioned above. A cynic might say that it would be very easy for an exhibitor to take any recording of a whistling solo and claim that it was by the renowned Mrs. Shaw in order to draw customers. This may be true, but the relatively tight geographical and chronological cluster lends strength to the theory that a commercial recording that we have simply not identified must have been released.
Using the traditional approach, a discography of Alice J. Shaw’s recordings would include only the 1907 Edison cylinder and the Victor discs. Depending on scope, it might also include the 1888 “white wax” cylinder recorded in London. But such a discography would be a very long way from fulfilling its primary purpose: showing the complete picture of the complexities of the recording history of its subject. Many aspects of phonograph culture in the 19th century are unique to the era. Examples of “lost” recordings such as those of Mrs. Shaw abound throughout the period. They are “lost” first and foremost because neither physical examples nor documentary evidence of their existence have been located. Information about many of them only exists as fragments of evidence scattered throughout the archive, not as data conveniently held in company records or on the recordings themselves, as is the case with later material. Nineteenth-century discography is already an area that relies as heavily on the archival as it does on the physical. Because of the scarcity of physical examples and very sparse documentation that survives, we will likely never have a truly complete picture of the recording history of the phonograph’s earliest days. I hope to go into this in greater detail in a future post, but if something approaching a comprehensive discography of these earliest recordings is ever to be achieved, it will require a much deeper immersion into the archive as well as a new form of presentation. I have begun to refer to this as reconstructed discography, one in which the actual and the theoretical are both allowed into the main narrative.
The case of Alice J. Shaw and her lost recordings is simply one example that highlights how much discographical research is still needed into the days of the nickel-slot phonograph. Much of the excellent research that has emerged in this area over the years has been the work of avid collectors and fans, not professional scholars. As the original material becomes even more rare and harder to find in the marketplace, fewer collectors are likely to be drawn into the field. New researchers will therefore need to find the subject by other routes. At first glance, the history of the phonograph’s beginnings seems like a tale of lawsuit heaped upon lawsuit, only of interest to a patent attorney. There is a large amount of truth in this. But I think Mrs. Shaw’s case shows that there are still a great number of human stories lurking just beneath the tangled narrative of inventions, lawsuits, and countersuits, stories that simply need to be plucked from the archive and told.